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Confronting Dostoevsky’s «Demons»

Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia

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James Goodwin

Although criticized at one time for its highly tendentious spirit, Dostoevsky’s Demons (1871-1872) has proven to be a novel of great polemical vitality. Originally inspired by a minor conspiratorial episode of the late 1860s, well after Dostoevsky’s death (1881) the work continued to earn both acclaim and contempt for its scathing caricature of revolutionists driven by destructive, anarchic aims. The text of Demons assumed new meaning in Russian literary culture following the Bolshevik triumph of 1917, when the reestablishment and expansion of centralized state power inevitably revived interest in the radical populist tendencies of Russia’s past, in particular the anarchist thought of Dostoevsky’s legendary contemporary, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876).
Confronting Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ is the first book to explore the life of Dostoevsky’s novel in light of disputes and controversies over Bakunin’s troubling legacy in Russia. Contrary to the traditional view, which assumes the obsolescence of Demons throughout much of the Communist period (1917-1991), this book demonstrates that the potential resurgence of Bakuninist thought actually encouraged reassessments of Dostoevsky’s novel. By exploring the different ideas and critical strategies that motivated opposing interpretations of the novel in post-revolutionary Russia, Confronting Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ reveals how the potential resurrection of Bakunin’s anti-authoritarian ethos fostered the return of a politically reactionary novel to the canon of Russian classics.

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5. Viacheslav Polonsky and the Marxist Struggle over Bakunin’s Legacy 129

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CHAPTER 5 Viacheslav Polonsky and the Marxist Struggle over Bakunin’s Legacy In publicizing their bold distinction between Stavrogin and Bakunin, the anarchists Borovoi and Otverzhennyi undoubtedly relied to a large extent on the still fluid position toward Bakunin in official discourse. For the anarchists, obstinate opposition to Grossman by the Bolshevik Polonsky demonstrated a clear defense of Bakunin’s legacy from a Soviet standpoint which—they obviously hoped—might remain open to the anarchist perspective. Yet while they found themselves unified in their rejection of Grossman’s thesis, the anarchist Borovoi and the Marxist Polonsky remained poles apart in their ideological motives. Fearing, like Borovoi, that “a legend” might “take deep root in the mind of the reader” (42), Polonsky, too, aimed to dissociate Baku- nin as thoroughly as possible from the image of Stavrogin; but as a Bolshevik, his interest in defending Bakunin, of course, did not include the immediate dismantling of the Communist dictatorship. Notwithstanding its incompatibil- ity with statism, Polonsky clearly aimed to preserve the legacy of Bakunin for its symbolic value, particularly as manifested in Bakunin’s passion for worldwide social revolution. In so doing, however, Polonsky ran the danger of confirming the critique of hostile Social Democrats and others who continued to identify Bolshevism with Bakuninism, in other words, with a regressive, non-Marxist populist ideology. In his effort to rehabilitate Bakunin, Polonsky therefore searched for a critical strategy that would extricate Bakunin from the political hall of infamy without resurrecting, at the same time, his militant anarchist demons....

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